Sunday, August 5, 2012

Pentecost Ten
Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

But unto each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ.

I went roller skating with a group of my friends. We were part of an organization and we had the skating party as a fellowship event. My mom was one of the chaperones. My mom was quite the roller skater when she was young, and she had not lost any of her grace and ability at the skating rink, despite the fact that she was well into her forties, possibly in her fifties, on that evening. She glided across the floor, impressing us all with her twists and turns. She even skated backwards.

Unfortunately, her reflexes were not quite as quick on that night as they probably were when she was young. She was skating backwards and a small child fell down right behind her. She tripped over the child, landed squarely on her hand and broke her arm. Her arm was never the same. The injury hurt, but she laughed about it. My mom was a bit of a fatalist. She had this idea that things were fated to happen, and if had decided that if she was supposed to break her arm that day, she would much rather have done it on the skating rink than in some other way. “At least I was having fun when it happened!”

I can hear that same attitude in the voice of the Israelites in today’s Old Testament passage. “Would that we had died by the hand of Jehovah in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” They would have preferred dying as slaves in Egypt than to starve to death in the desert. The problem with this point of view is that God had no intention to let them die. He had a plan for His people.

Sadly, the people were remembering life in Egypt with rose-colored glasses. They might have had enough food to live, but were they really satisfied by the food they were given as slaves? How long would they have had enough? Pharaoh was concerned by the strength and power of the nation of Israel within the borders of Egypt and was slowly but surely limiting their freedoms and resources. He was even making it difficult for them to do the work that he required of them. Was life so good in Egypt really?

No, life wasn’t that good for Israel in Egypt, and the fatalistic point of view offered a false promise. Death would not be better in Egypt; God promised them real life and freedom in the Promised Land. The desert wandering was a time of testing. Would they trust God? Would they follow His Word? Would they do what was right or would they follow their own thoughts?

Now, they didn’t come out and blame God for their troubles. Moses and Aaron were easy scapegoats for their wrath. God assured Moses and Aaron that it wasn’t their problem. The tests were not how well they could convince the people to believe in God. The test was whether or not the people had faith.

Isn’t it amazing how much God does to prove Himself to His people? I don’t know about you, but I’m just as likely to say “fine, you don’t think I can do it so oh well” and walk away. If they wanted to go back to Egypt, I’d probably let them. Then at the end I would get to say “I told you so.” I’d rather not fight with those who didn’t appreciate me. Thankfully, God is not like me. Perhaps I should be more like God.

See, God heard their cries and send everything they needed to survive in the wilderness. He told the people that they would see meat in the evening and bread in the morning. The quail came, and they were fed. The manna came, and though they didn’t understand it at first, they were fed and satisfied. Sadly, the people would eventually get sick of quail and manna and they would begin complaining again. But in this story we see that God provides what we need even if we do not trust that He will. He hears our complaining and He answers with His grace. Would that we could be so gracious.

The trouble is that we often look to the wrong source to supply our needs. The people looked to Moses and Aaron. They were fallible human beings with no special powers. They could not buy bread in the desert. They couldn’t even grow the grain, harvest the wheat and make the bread for so many. They could not provide for God’s people. But Moses and Aaron weren’t called to provide for them. They were chosen to lead the people to the Promised Land, with God as guide and provider. The wandering was a time for God to prove Himself to the whole assembly. By the time they got to the Promised Land, they’d have to trust God even more. And in their history they would need to trust Him even more. If they could only trust Him to give them meat and bread, they might trust Him to protect them from the more deadly dangers they would face.

But we don’t think about those other things when our bellies are grumbling. We don’t think about our soul when we are hungry. We fight for the tangible things, but ignore the things that really matter. That’s what Jesus saw in the crowds on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. After feeding the crowd of five thousand or more, people who were seeking Him because He was doing miraculous things, Jesus saw that they still did not understand. They recognized that He was the Messiah, but they wanted an earthly king. They wanted someone who would lead them out of occupation into a golden age of prosperity as a sovereign nation. They did not know that they had a deeper need, the need for forgiveness and the hope of eternal life.

Unfortunately, Jesus’ teachings seemed to contradict that which was given to the people by Moses. When Jesus told the crowd not to work for food that perishes but to work for food that endures, they asked, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” They, of course, were expecting Jesus to repeat the Law which was given to them by Moses. They expected to hear a list of rules to obey and things to do. They wanted to receive God’s blessings based on their own actions. That’s the way it has always been. Moses gave them the Law. Moses gave them the manna. If Jesus contradicted Moses, then He’d have to prove Himself.

Jesus didn’t come to feed the hungry or heal the sick. He did those things to prove to the people that He is who He is. He did it, just like God proved Himself in the desert, to prove Himself to us. And all He wants in return is that we believe, and trust that He will do what is good and right and true. He will provide what we need. And while we do need food for our bellies, the true bread is Jesus. In Him is life; in Him is eternal life.

We forget that we need salvation when we are hungry. We forget that we are sinners in need of a Savior when we are suffering in some way. When our tummies grumble, our mouths grumble and we look for someone to blame. We blame the person in charge. Yet, we learn in today’s lessons that when you grumble against those whom God has chosen, like Moses, you grumble against God. Moses was the person whom God sent to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, but he was not their Savior. God was their Savior, so if they were unhappy being away from Egypt, it was Him they had to blame.

Moses became more than a man. He became a legend. He became their savior. He became their deliverer. He became the one to whom the people turned in times of stress and distress. He did not make it into the Promised Land, but he was with them always because he gave them the Law. When there was a question, they turned to the Law. The Law was their god at times, even when they were not faithful or obedient. That was true in Jesus’ day.

The psalmist said, “So they did eat, and were well filled; And he gave them their own desire.” God gave them what they desired; He fed them bread and they were full. Yet, the gift came with a test. It was a lesson; God wanted to see their obedience. Would they believe Him? Would they trust Him? The feeding of the five thousand was also a test. How would the disciples respond to the need? What would the people do when their bellies were full? Would they continue to look to Jesus for the things they really needed? We’ll see how that goes next week.

The psalm is a lesson in the relationship between God and His people. It tells of how God proved Himself to the people over and over again even though they continued to sin. The psalmist tells of God’s grace despite the people’s unfaithfulness. It tells of God’s mercy even though the people turned their back on Him. The text for today focuses specifically on the story of the manna in the wilderness, but we see how God provided for them until they had their fill. We see the same in the relationship between Jesus and those who were following Him.

God had a plan then. He had a plan in Jesus’ day. He had a plan for the early church, and that plan continues for us today. He calls us to faith, to live in faith, to act faithfully. Paul reminds the reader to “walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called.” Paul encourages us to work. The question we ask, then, is what calling? Jesus told us: God calls us to believe. Don’t misunderstand; this is not a passive faith. It is an active and living faith that naturally works the work that pleases God. It is the faith that leads to maturity, and that maturity leads to love. In this faith we trust that God provides us with everything we need. He gives us the gifts to take His promises into the world. He joins us to one another so that together we can share His grace with those who misunderstand. See, despite the miraculous ways God has proven Himself over and over again, the world continues to look to the wrong sources.

At times it seems even the Church, like the Israelites, have lost touch with the reality. Life isn’t really that good in Egypt. It isn’t better to be slaves. We might think we have more food around the flesh pots of that old place, but the real bread is from heaven. The real bread is Jesus. Yes, the people need food to eat, and we are called to believe that God will provide us with all we need to help them. We cannot look to others to do that work for us. We cannot trust others to do what God will do through us. Will we believe and go forth in the world trusting in Him?

Why do we continue to put our trust in human beings and institutions who cannot do what God can do? The Israelites trusted in Moses, but He was not their savior. They didn’t learn the lesson that God taught them in the desert. The Jews trusted that Jesus could be king, but they missed what Jesus was really teaching them when He fed them with the bread. There will be grumbling of bellies and mouths, but God hears and He does provide. God has called us to believe and He provides all we need. Let us never forget, however, to give them the bread that comes from heaven, our Lord and true Savior, Jesus Christ. All we have to do is believe, and God’s grace will flow.

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